Damascus and Frank Whiteley, 1967

Sep 19th 2008 01:19 am |

As this year’s champion three-year-old Big Brown points to what will be his final race, the inevitable questions will begin about how he measures up against horses of the past. We are most certain to hear the word “great” being tossed around in relation to Big Brown as the Breeder’s Cup draws closer. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to take a look at Damascus’s 3-year-old season – a great campaign by any standard.

Image: Damascus on-track at Delaware Park with Frank Whiteley and Willie Davis two days after winning the Preakness. May 22, 1967 (Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society, image 8-130)

In looking at some of the newspaper articles about Damascus in 1967, I found two of particular interest and both focus on the colt’s trainer, Frank Whiteley.

Whiteley’s reputation as gruff and difficult with members of the media is legendary. What I found fascinating about the two articles from the Washington Post is they provide details about Whiteley’s handing of Damascus during his 1967 campaign.

Damascus after a workout with Davis and Whiteley at Delaware Park. June 13, 1967
(Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society, image 8-124)

Damascus lost as the favorite in the 1967 Kentucky Derby but came back to win the Preakness. What caught the attention of a UPI reporter in a story published after his win at Pimlico was the handling of the great horse. Here are a few quotes from the UPI story published in the Post under this headline:

“Damascus, the unbelievably pampered Preakness winner, is a cinch to wind up with one of two titles, either Horse of the Year or the most coddled animal of the year.”

“There were times at festive, country-like old Pimlico on Saturday when the handsome temperamental 3-year-old son of Sword Dancer looked like both.

“There were also times when it was difficult remembering that he was a mere horse, because his trainer, Frank Whiteley, and everyone else connected with him treated him as if he was visiting royalty; a lot better, in fact.

“No one expects a young monarch to pop in and pay off $141,500 just like that. Damascus did, though, and maybe that is why they made such an uncommon fuss about him…

“…From here, Damascus goes on to the Belmont Stakes, where he will be shooting for his eighth victory in 11 starts. He has won seven of his last 10, finished second twice and third once, in the Derby…

“…Quite a horse this Damascus. He should be, too, the way everyone clears a path for him. Paul Revere’s horse never had it that good.”

Frank Whiteley would take his horse to New York and win the Belmont Stakes. Damascus would go from there to have, according to Steve Haskin, one of the “most incredible three-year-old seasons” he had ever seen.

In his first start after the Belmont Stakes, Damascus won the
Leonard Richards Stakes at Delaware Park with Ron Turcotte aboard

(Courtesy of Delaware Historical Society)

Towards the end of 1967, the Washington Post reported again on Whiteley and Damascus but this time the tone had changed. The “coddled” horse became the “successfully isolated” horse who had won 12 out of 16 races including two legs of the Triple Crown, the Travers by 22 lengths, the Woodward beating Buckpasser and Dr. Fager by 10 lengths, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the final win of his 3-year-old season. In his last race of 1967, he lost the DC International at Laurel Park on the turf by a nose to that year’s grass champion, Fort Marcy.

The Washington Post reporter wrote just days before Damascus’ final start. Under the headline “Whiteley Proves Isolationism can Succeed”, the Post wrote this about the trainer and his champion on October 28, 1967:

“When all is right with Frank Whitley, the horse trainer, he is far from the crowd and keeping happy solitude with a horse, especially his wondersteed, Damascus…

“…As the architect of [Damascus] triumphant tour, Whiteley has sometimes made people nervous by insisting on keeping to himself. At the Preakness in May, he sheltered Damascus in his barn and refused to report to the infield saddling area until three minutes before deadline…

“…’You could spend 50 minutes in the paddock at the Preakness if you went there right away’, he explained. ‘There’s a lot of commotion, Why go there before you have to.’

“Whiteley also believes the best way to have something done is to do it himself. This was borne out in a visit with him at Belmont Park, where Damascus trained for his victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Aqueduct.

“Whiteley headquarters was Barn 16, a few yards down a soft, dirt path from the squat brick house where the late Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons used to catch his mid-morning naps.

“This was Whiteley, visible through the cool, yellow haze after-dawn, washing by hand the protective bandages for Damascus’ legs, and pulling the long white strands through the wringer of a washing machine venerable enough to have served Damascus great-grandparents.

“Whiteley also walks Damascus, pitches his stall full with fresh hay, fills his pail with sweet, new feed. ‘I make time for him’, he said and might have added, ‘with pleasure.’

“Later, Whiteley cooled his horse’s leg with water from a garden hose, Damascus stood quietly, sometimes poised with head bowed and front legs crossed as gracefully as those of a ballerina. At other moments, he stood powerfully masculine in a pose as motionless as a portrait and, all the while, the morning sun cast yellow-red tints across his bay coat.

“Beating Dr. Fager meant much to Whiteley, he conceded. ‘He had beaten me. I like to beat them all. Johnny Nerud has done a lot of talking.’

“That reference to Dr. Fager’s outspoken trainer is as strong a statement as Whiteley is likely to make. He rarely reveals emotion, and is known as the Maryland Sphinx for his brief sorties at conservation. Taciturn he is, but unfriendly he is not”

As he speaks, Whiteley often smiles and balances a cigarette and toothpick at right angles in his mouth. ‘It’s hard to say what he’d bring now on the market,’ he says, while studying Damascus. ‘It would be too much for one man to own.’

Frank Whiteley was elected to the racing Hall of Fame in 1978. He died this year at the age of 93. In his obituary trainer Shug McGaughey said of Whiteley he was “a wonderful horseman, who did it the grass-roots way, and there just aren’t that many around any more.”

In 1967, Damascus was named Horse of the Year, champion three-year-old and handicap horse. Here is his complete record for the 1967 season (click to enlarge):

Damascus raced at 4, winning 6 of 12 starts, and was retired after bowing his tendon in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at season’s end.


“Damascus Bids for Horse of Year, Certain of Most Coddled Title,” Washington Post, May 23, 1967

“Whiteley Proves Isolationism Can Suceed,” Washington Post, October 29, 1967

The images for this article came from the Delaware Historical Society. I have used images from this collection in a previous post. The Historical Society owns a wonderful photograph collection from Delaware Park that covers a period from approximately 1947 to 1974. The collection contains some hidden treasures including the photos of Frank Whiteley and Damascus used here. I hope to share other images from the collection in future articles.

Bob Fox interviewed Frank Whiteley in 1983. The interview is available online: http://www.blogger.com/www.championsgallery.com/bobfrank.htm. It is slow to download but well worth the wait.

The idea for researching Damascus in 1967 began when reading Tales from the Triple Crown where author Steve Haskin wrote that Secretariat and Damascus had the two best three-year-old seasons he had ever seen. Haskin’s book is an essential piece of writing on the recent history of the triple crown.

Proud Spell will be in the neighborhood this weekend running in the Cotillion at Philly Park. They appear to be missing an opportunity to put some marketing muscle behind promoting her appearance. Saturday at Philly Park will be like any other day except that a champion filly will be racing – sad that only a few will notice.

Next Saturday is one of my favorite racing days of the year. Really looking forward to a trip up the turnpike for Jockey Club Gold Cup Day at Belmont Park.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Damascus,horse racing,thoroughbred racing history,Whiteley, Frank

7 Responses to “Damascus and Frank Whiteley, 1967”

  1. Pattie says:

    Thank you for the story, I loved it! I never knew Ron Turcotte rode Damascus in the Leonard Richards Stakes. Yes, I agree, we do need more trainers like Frank Whiteley. He truely LOVED his horses, which is rare these days.

  2. Winston...not really says:

    Thanks for the look back.

  3. The Turk says:

    I’m a huge Frank Whitely fan. I just found this today and I enjoyed the read very much.

  4. Anonymous says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a fine horse and horseman. Thank you.

  5. deejayem says:

    I think that is Charlsie Cantey on Damascus in the above photo….captioned”Damascus after a workout with Davis and Whiteley at Delaware Park. June 13, 1967
    (Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society, image 8-124)”

    I believe she was one of his exercise riders

  6. Bill Nock says:

    We were at Delaware Park that Saturday in June 1967. Damascus went off at 1-10. We pooled our money at bet the rest of the field to win.

    We lost.

    Damascus was the class of the field that day and many others.

  7. RexRox says:

    Damascus was a wonderful champion, and his 1967 season is one of the best ever, but Mr. Whiteley would REALLY have something to brag about if he ever beat Dr. Fager without employing a rabbit. Of ourse, he never did, nor did anyone else.